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APP Your Own Risk: What's on your child's smartphone?

Published: Nov. 2, 2015 at 3:23 PM MST|Updated: May. 2, 2016 at 2:00 AM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Between the Apple App Store and Android Marketplace, there are more than three million smart phone applications available for users to download.

While games and social media may take up most of the storage on a high school student's phone, some experts warn there are other apps that could be potentially dangerous for children.

Anonymity is a concern, according to Alex Beck at Gaggle, a company that provides safe online learning products, solutions and services to the K-12 market, according to its website.

The company works with school districts to monitor students' social media use. Beck said anonymous apps can be used by sex offenders with bad intentions.

"Obviously it's mostly student to student, but students can't be sure of who they're talking to with anonymous apps," he said.

Here's a few to be on the look out for...

Kik  

Kik is an instant-messaging app that boasts more than 240 million registered users, according to its website.

Kik allows users to connect without needing a phone number. A user can add friends and their Kik accounts to a list of friends, but messages can come from anyone.

Tommy Collins, a junior at Tucson High School, said that's exactly why he stopped using the app.

"It's just weird," he said. "You don't know who you're talking to unless you know them personally."

Daniela Bojorquez, also a junior, said she deleted it almost instantly because of the messages she kept receiving from strangers.

"Weirdos and a lot of perverts," she said. "Older men, like 40, trying to get with 15-year-olds. It's…no."

A message to Kik for comment has not been returned.

Ask.fm

Ask.fm provides users with an outlet to ask and answer questions anonymously. Anyone with a question he or she is too bashful to ask with an identity attached to it, could pose the question to Ask.fm and wait for results.

In a high school setting, students may have innocent intentions.

"Often times people who have a crush on someone will go onto the app and start asking, try to investigate a little," said Joshua McKenna, a senior at Tucson High.

But some on campus said they d ropped the app from the phone when they saw what it could do to their fellow students.

Sophomore Jesus Gomez compared it to bullying.

"You can't see the person asking the question, even if you want to know," he said.

Users are able to block anonymous questions, according to Chief Trust and Safety Officer Catherine Teitelbaum.

Ask.com created the position when it bought Ask.fm in 2014.

Since then, Teitelbaum said Ask.fm have formed agreements with Attorneys General in New York and Maryland, established a teen advisory board and established guidelines for law enforcement agencies investigating any sort of illegal activity on the app.

The app strives for anonymity with responsibility, Teitelbaum said.

Users may remain anonymous through the app, but the company has the names and log-in information for everyone using Ask.fm, according to Teitelbaum. She encouraged every parent with questions about the app to consult the company's Safety Center.

She provided the statement below:

"Ask.fm is a dramatically different place from one year ago, a result of millions of dollars invested and significant improvements to our policies, user reporting tools and moderation. We're committed to fostering digital citizenship among our user base and working in partnership with parents and schools to guide teens toward positive and responsible choices online."

Whisper

The app Whisper has a similar section on its website dedicated to law enforcement agencies investigating activity on the app.

Whisper is a place for people to be empathetic to others' anonymous posts that may not typically show up on other social media that include identifying information, according to a spokeswoman for the app.

The company employs 100 full-time moderators to keep an eye on the app's content. Bullying, name-calling and trolling are unacceptable and content will be deleted, even users banned, if content crosses the line.

A scroll through some of the posts shows everything from X-rated offers for meet-ups and hook-ups to potentially suicidal calls for help.

More than 50,000 whisper posts have been passed along to the National Suicide Prevention Line, according to a spokesperson for Whisper.

The following statement was provided by Whisper:

"From day one, our number one priority is to maintain the safety of the Whisper community, and making sure that Whisper is a place for empathy and authenticity; We have over 100 human content moderators who manually review content and enforce our guidelines. We have numerous technical safeguards in place, an in-house Director of Trust and Safety who proactively refers illegal activity to law enforcement, and given bullying and trolling are not tolerated on Whisper, we have created a non-profit organization, Your Voice, with the primary goal being to reduce stigma around mental health for young adults and offer resources to support them including resources on bullying and suicide prevention. 

We recently partnered with the Ad Council on a robust anti-bullying campaign called 'I Am A Witness,' and we also worked with Coca Cola on an anti cyber-bullying campaign on the Whisper platform. Additionally, Whisper is rated 17+ in the app store and we comply with phone parental controls." 

Still, critics of anonymous apps like Whisper said students would be better off without them entirely.

"They're sort of what we refer to here as basically the stall of a public bathroom," Beck said. "Anyone can make an account and say what they want to say."
 
Yik Yak

This one is meant for users at least 18 years of age.

It works like a community message board where anonymous users can make posts that can then include replies from anonymous users.

Even if someone is not in the general area of a Yik Yak discussion, he or she can "peek" at the area to view the conversations. The app includes geo-fences to prohibit use in school zones, according to a spokeswoman.

If a school campus slips through the fence, anyone can report it to Yik Yak to be fixed.

While this app is marketed to an older crowd, Beck said it's another example of social media that parents should be aware of and asking children about their use.

"That's really the only way that I think they can go about it," he said. "The kid needs to know the parent is involved. If they're left on their own, then who knows what they could be doing"

Bojorquez said she's always open with her parents about what's on her phone and who she's interacting with online.

"I talk to my Dad about Kik and I tell them this is why I'm laughing," she said.

McKenna, who has used Ask.fm, said many parents don't understand these apps, and probably never will.

"But you know, us kids, we love our smart phones, love our apps," McKenna said.

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